DVD Review Of Nosferatu, Phantom Of The Night

Copyright © by Dan Schneider, 12/24/06


  Werner Herzog is an artist out of his time….and that’s a very good thing for lovers of great films. His own great 1979 film Nosferatu, Phantom Of The Night (Nosferatu, Phantom Der Nacht), which was released in America as Nosferatu, The Vampire, is less a classic vampire film and more a Post-Apocalyptic tale, having more in common (especially image-wise) with films like On The Beach, The Quiet Earth, the Vincent Price classic The Last Man On Earth (based on Richard Matheson’s I Am Legend), and even the first Night Of The Living Dead, than with the Hollywood Dracula mythos, and even its silent filmic predecessor, Friedrich Wilhelm Murnau’s 1922 classic Nosferatu, A Symphony of Horrors (Nosferatu, Eine Symphonie Des Grauens), because Herzog is a filmmaker not afraid to turn his camera eye on ugliness, and use that as a way to limn reality better and more clearly in his search for his own ‘ecstatic truth.’ Herzog has always specialized in eye level realism, wherein he generally eschews those glossy gorgeous postcard-like shots that many filmmakers often substitute for depth, and this results in his ability to push his stories forward without relying on obvious techniques, substituting elements that hit at a viewer’s instinctual reactions rather than merely the intellectual. This comes from his great screenplays, such as this one, which are usually his own creations; albeit with a little help from the novel he adapted it from, Bram Stoker’s Dracula.

  This 107 minute film melds the best parts of Murnau’s classic film with the Dracula legendry we all know, yet is unlike either, nor any other vampire film ever made. The film is not a remake nor an homage, which it is usually lazily called, but an artistic vampire of a vampire of a vampire film, because, unlike the silent film, the Count is called Dracula, not Orlock, for by the time Herzog made his film Dracula had fallen into public domain. The original film weathered legal litigation for copyright infringement from the Stoker estate, but this film, part of the 1970s wave of New German Cinema (Das Neue Kino)- which were really the troika of Herzog, Wim Wenders, and Rainer Werner Fassbinder, is possibly that loose movement’s height; although one might argue Herzog’s own earlier masterpiece Aguirre: The Wrath Of God was its pinnacle. It was filmed in the Dutch town of Delft, in English, to satisfy American investors’ demands for marketability in the United States, and then dubbed into German, with subtitles for other countries. Several of Herzog’s films were done this way, including Aguirre and Fitzcarraldo.

  The film begins in Wismar, where Jonathan Harker (Bruno Ganz), a real estate clerk, seeks a large commission by selling a local ‘haunted house’ to Count Dracula (Klaus Kinski- in another magnificent role), so he can but his wife Lucy (Isabelle Adjani, a somewhat sexier version of Shelly Duvall). Yet, Lucy seems to have psychic abilities- something new to the mythos, and senses danger awaits, so begs him not to go. Yet, he takes four weeks traveling through the Carpathian Mountains, where all warn him not to proceed. This is a memorable sequence in the film, for we again see real people- real Gypsies who are not pretty and polished, as in Hollywood films, and we see real landscapes that seem to forebode in their immanence. Shots of the sky, at dusk, are gorgeous and drawn out, but gorgeous in a real way, a depressing way that perfectly sets up the first encounter with the Count, at night, when Harker arrives at his castle. Yet, this whole transition passage through the Borgo Pass goes on over eight minutes in length, with nary a word spoken. Who but Herzog (and possibly Antonioni?) would allow such a silent interlude? Yet it works subliminally, and eases one into irreality and the coming of the death represented by the vampire.

  Kinski looks very much as Max Schreck did in the original Nosferatu, yet with one major difference. He is weak, sniveling, pitiable; a pathetic creature at home and in command of rats, bats, and the Black Death. Whereas Schreck’s vampire exuded menace and rigid power, Kinski’s beast is more a living pathogen than predator, or even a scavenger. He gets physically and sexually excited by both a cut Harker makes on his finger and a photograph of Lucy. He soon infects Harker and buys the property, then sails for Wismar, bringing his hordes of rats and the Bubonic Plague with him.

  Harker tries to get back to town before Dracula does, but is too sick. When he arrives, the Count has already infected many others- although we never see a moment of violence in the film (merely a brief sexual grope of Lucy’s breast by Dracula), and Harker’s memory is gone, as his wife quarantines him with known anti-vampire aids, knowing he is doomed to vampirism if her love cannot save him. Scenes of a desolate Wismar, with rats loose, dead horses in the streets, garbage strewn about, and coffins piled up, make this film an Apocalyptic tale, as well as a vampire story. Lucy knows the only way to kill Dracula is to seduce him into feasting on her until sunrise, whereupon he’ll die at the first rays of light. Dr. Abraham Van Helsing (Walter Ladengast), the town’s medicine man, refuses to believe Lucy’s vampire theory, ascribing it to the Black Death, but when he sees that both she and Dracula are dead in her room, and Harker is imprisoned by a trail of consecrated crumbs, he takes a stake and hammer and makes sure the Count is done. The film ends with Van Helsing humorously arrested for the murder of Dracula, even though no police remain, while Harker gets his maid to clean up the crumbs, setting him free on his new life as Dracula’s replacement in Death, his wife’s sacrifice all in vain. When we watch him ride off on a horse, in a wonderful dreamscape of sand and clouds, to carry on the plague, we know that the vampire conventions have both been usurped and reset back to Stoker’s strict constructionism, by the Apocalyptic, and it is a masterstroke of storytelling.

  In what should not be a surprise, many of the critics of the day were left puzzled as to the film’s meaning and import. Vincent Canby, of the New York Times, wrote ‘Herzog has done what he set out to do, but when you come right down to it, one wonders if it's worth the trouble. Dracula, after all, is not Hamlet or Othello or Macbeth. He’s not some profoundly complex character who speaks to us in more voices than most of us care to hear. Dracula is Santa Claus turned mean. He’s a fairy tale character. Though he represents something vestigially scary, he’s not endlessly interesting.’ This is all true….in other tellings of the tale, not in this one, which is why the film was made. In this film Dracula is not mean, nor a fairy tale character. He is not The Big Bad Wolf. He is someone struggling explicitly and implicitly with death, love, and his own immortality. He tells Harker, ‘Young men. You are like the villagers, and cannot place yourself in the soul of the hunter.’ Yet, despite his professed longing for death, over the centuries he has never merely waited for the sunrise. It is not until he is duped into believing Lucy has any form of love for him that he relents, and knowingly chooses to die. Frankly, and as much as I love the above troika of some of Shakespeare’s best protagonists, Herzog’s Dracula is FAR more complex; which only proves Canby’s stolidity as a critic in not rising above his biases, and reviewing not the film he saw, but the film he wanted to see and did not. Ironically, fiction writer Donald Barthelme wrote of the film, ‘The problem here is that Herzog was unable to bring new life to his much-handled material.’ Not only is this clearly wrong, as Herzog’s film stands above and outside all vampire cinema, but coming from a writer like Barthelme, who was so delimited and hackneyed in his own art form, such a criticism makes one wonder if there was not a wink and a nod going on. Or am I merely being too generous in expressing that hope?

  Perhaps the reason many other critics balked at this great film was because 1979 saw the release of two other Dracula films, John Badham’s Dracula, starring Frank Langella as a sexy Count, and Stan Dagoti’s Love at First Bite. wherein Dracula, played by George Hamilton, was both sexy and silly. Yet, another factor in the film’s early diminution was likely that year’s later release of another great horror film, another remake of sorts, albeit a much more Hollywood film, and that was Ridley Scott’s Alien. That film also featured a vampiric monster who kills off the whole population and is aided by a surrogate (an android in that film, Renfield the realtor in Nosferatu), yet provided a moviegoer’s easy out by having the heroine defeat the monster at the end. Nosferatu did not give its viewers an easy out.

  This commitment to unease is rife in the film, from the opening shots of dried mummies (filmed in Mexico), to slow motion shots of bats in flight, eerily lit, to Lucy’s telepathy with the Count (or is it empathy?), to the almost preternatural way Herzog films landscapes to suggest that they are seething with life and malice, to the lingering camera, which looks upon the world with an unwavering eye. Perhaps only films like Michelangelo Antonioni’s best films or Francis Ford Coppola’s The Conversation rely on extended looking, to the point that a viewer may be uneased. Also, the change in color, darker to reds and blues, eases the frame of mind a viewer has into what Herzog subliminally wants it to be. Herzog is a master of image, as well as sound, and his score for this film, from Popol Vuh and Florian Fricke, is, again, masterful. Yet, even supporters of this film often miss the point. This is not ‘one of the greatest horror films ever made,’ as critic John Azzopardi claims, for it is not a horror film, even if it is, technically, a monster film. A Post-Apocalyptic film is not a horror film, it is what comes after the horror has passed. We never see violence, not even Van Helsing’s staking of Dracula’s corpse, which remains, unlike in Murnau’s film, where the sunlight fades the vampire out of existence. We merely see death. Herzog’s film is remarkably peaceful, subtle, and languid. Note the scene where Dracula slinks into Lucy’s room, as a shadow in the mirror, and begs her to love and save him, and he will return her husband to him. She refuses, and in any other film the vampire would have attacked. In this film he slinks off like a rejected puppy. No wonder Hollywood addicted critics rejected it, despite always professing to want something more. When they got exactly what they asked for, they whiffed on it.

  As for Klaus Kinski? He gives another toweringly great performance, which ranks aside his roles as Aguirre and Fitzcarraldo. He plays the ultimate nightmare creature, yet there is also pathos and comedy- note the scene where he is lusting for Lucy from outside a window, and Renfield (Roland Topor) shows up to play sycophant. Kinski’s look of disgust and dismissiveness reveals that his character is not the one dimensional bloodsucker of a Christopher Lee. And this is all wonderfully conveyed despite the makeup job, the only special effect in the film. Yet, it is not the intense, haunted eyes within the darkened, hollowed sockets, nor the gaunt, wasted mien, nor the feral yet timid movements of his angular form, nor even the bald pate and pointed ears which convey these depths. It is Kinski who does it. It is a gift that is inseparable from the artist.

  The DVD, part of Anchor Bay’s great Herzog-Kinski boxed set, is terrific. It is presented in a 1.85:1 aspect ratio, and comes with a thirteen minute featurette made back in 1979. It also features two American film trailers and a Spanish trailer, and comes with another of Herzog’s incisive film commentaries, prompted by Norman Hill of Anchor Bay. He speaks of problems with filming, and how Delft banned some scenes being filmed within city limits with the eleven thousand rats they imported and painted gray. Some scenes were shot in the nearby town of Schiedam. He also rightly dismisses the special effects crapfests of Steven Spielberg as well as Francis Ford Coppola’s big budget filmic stab at Dracula. The big disappointment with the DVD is that, despite its being filmed in English, we merely get the German version, with English subtitles, which, ironically, show the actors lips out of synch. It is odd as to why the original English language version was not included.

  The camera work by Jorg Schmidt-Reitwein is among the best in not only the Herzog canon, but in all of film. It is subdued, subtly shifts color palettes depending upon the mood of the lead characters, makes use of shadows the way the black and white classics of Carl Theodor Dreyer do, and has a colorful monochrome which dissonates the expectations of the viewer, much as the slow motion images of bats in flight- borrowed from a science documentary, do. The fact that the bat sequences are also drenched in a great film score only adds to the moments. Yet, this is Herzog at his best, whether stealing from himself- note the raft load of black coffins going down yet another river, or pioneering hand held shots in an age when they were eschewed, all to further the sense of the real, the vaunted eye level realism that shows the past as it was- dirty, grimy, and filled with generally pathetic souls, just as his earlier The Enigma Of Kaspar Hauser did.

  Yet Herzog never is heavyhanded in his use of artistic techniques. Look at the subversive symbolism in a shot of Dracula in the town square, when a ring of streetlamps in the background blur to form a diadem or halo about his pate. This can be interpreted several ways, but the interpretation is not as important as the very boldness such a shot entails. Or note how emotional scenes are never displayed closeup, as in Hollywood tearjerkers, but from a distance, and usually shot from behind the actors- a technique Herzog manifestly borrowed from Ingmar Bergman. He also allows the viewer to fill in narrative interstices with what is known from the Dracula mythos, thereby focusing on character- not horror, which is immanent in all vampire tales. This allows him to throw in narrative dissonances and unexpected moments, such as Dracula’s clock chiming at midnight, or the appearance of a strangely deformed dwarf man to arrest Van Helsing, yet having no legal authority nor knowledge nor power to do so. Both of these moments are absurd, but horrible in the most existential sense. Their absurdity and displacement from conventions foster a feeling of illogic that gnaws at a viewer who cannot grasp why, thus making its unknown provenance another bit of horror.

  Also, consider the film’s end, where Lucy sacrifices herself in vain, becoming a vampire of the vampire by passively, then actively, soliciting his feeding upon her neck. Only Herzog could make a death-obsessed seductress out of a victim. In all of the films of his, I have never witnessed a single clichéd nor trite scene, image, nor even moment. This fact lifts Herzog not only into the top rank of filmmakers, but of artists of all time, alongside Shakespeare, Beethoven, Mozart, and Picasso. His great film is one of the finest character studies of a wholly fictive character ever filmed, for it first deconstructs, then reconstructs, then recontextualizes the whole mythos from the fairy tale horror many critics see Dracula as embodying, to a symbol of the worst of humanity- not its evil, but its cowardice and inaction. Only Lucy takes action, but because of her being alone in doing so she is doomed, as might be the whole world that Jonathan Harker rides away to infect. Sadly, I know what Lucy feels. Thanks, Werner.

[An expurgated version of this article originally appeared on the New York Review website.]

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